Dressing for Church: Which Way Does One Go?

pinstripe-bow-tieI cannot tell you how much time I have spent wondering how to dress for church, especially as a pastor.  Casual or no?  Suit or no? Tie or no? Khakis?  It’s maddening. In my 20s and 30s, my dress would depend on the context.  A Southern Southern Baptist Church would usually mean a suit and tie.  A church that just started and was looking to reach a younger demographic?  No tie, no suit, no how!

Have you ever wondered about this?  Churches usually slide one way or the other.  I remember going into a church plant with a coat and tie, and felt the peer pressure to take off the coat and tie.  Others wonder if they can come to an established church with anything else–even talking themselves out of coming because they don’t have “Sunday clothes.”

See the dilemma?

In Denver, I know the majority of pastors and church attenders usually wear a button down shirt or polo with khakis or jeans.  Some who have the build for it, wear T-shirts with logos that connect with a subset of our culture.  Yet, when I went back to Kentucky, I preached in the button down shirt with khakis, but at the restaurant, the majority of church folks who flooded the restaurant wore a suit and tie.  So very different from where I live, but not very different from how I grew up.

Now, I had the draft of the previous paragraphs in my draft folder for about two weeks, when lo and behold Joe McKeever, an insightful retired pastor who lives in New Orleans, put out a comment of Facebook that led to a lengthy article on his blog titled, “Does it matter how the preacher dresses?”  While many may dismiss McKeever as out of line and out of touch due to the whiteness of his hair or his advanced years, he brings much-needed wisdom to the table.  And maybe since I’m not in my 20s or 30s anymore–and this year will bring me closer to 50 than to 40–maybe I’ve mellowed as well.   But we would do well to read this if for nothing else than to interact with the topic.

Here’s McKeever’s point for pastors/leaders:  Staying dressed one step ahead of the dress of your average congregant inspires confidence in your leadership.

Let that soak in. First of all, he’s not saying coat and tie are mandatory across the board.  He’s not saying it–nor should he. Too many different contexts exist for such a blanket statement.

Second of all, he’s not saying that the way a pastor dresses will cover up other issues regarding character, care, preparedness, etc. It won’t take long for the average church attender or member to see through the charade.

My church have a few in a certain demographic that like their preacher in a suit and tie. Others in a younger demographic frankly don’t care.  They want me clean and dressed, which would be good for everyone!

Now let me stop and tell you what I’m doing: I’m spending a lot of time on this blog post, and a lot of time in my personal life over the years concerned about how my dress affects ministry.  Will my dress help connect with visitors? Will my dress be received well among our members?

It’s maddening!  And exhausting!

Over the last three weeks, I have found myself enjoying the feel of a bow tie.  I am in the process of learning how to tie an actual bow tie, but I’m wearing the pre-tied one at this point.  And the comments have come: some have told me, “Wow, you pull that off really well,” while others react as if you say, “You need to pull that off… like now!” (It’s probably about 80/20 for/against).

But it goes down to a fundamental question: what are the rules in wearing clothes to church?  And even for pastors?  Does McKeever have a point?

I think he does, and I’ll tell you why.

  1. There’s no way you will please everyone in the room.  If we have 200 people in our sanctuary, the chances of everyone of them being happy with any given thing are minimal to non-existent.  My goodness, I won’t please everyone reading this blog post even now.  My implication is not for us to stop trying, but to not make it the #1 reason for anything you do.
  2. If you’re not sure what to do, follow McKeever’s advice and dress one step ahead.  You don’t want to be the sloppiest guy in the room, but you don’t want to be two to three steps ahead.  Own your context, lean into it, and don’t apologize or worry.  I love wearing a suit and bow tie.  I can’t quantify why, I just do. I’ve almost gotten to where I can actually tie one.
  3. Whatever we do, be neat and clean.  Iron clothes, wash hair, and don’t let your attire distract.  I visited a church up the road where the pastor wore the pastor plaid and jeans (or was it khakis).  See? I can’t remember–because it didn’t distract.  Granted, some will be distracted regardless.  One couple came to our church who’d just moved up from Texas.  I had my suit and white shirt–but no tie.  They knew in their hearts it wasn’t that big a deal, but they couldn’t get past a pastor or any of the men now wearing a suit and tie when preaching.  Do I put on a tie just to keep them?  No–we’re back at square one in people pleasing.  Someone may object to my bowtie.  Do I yank it off?  No.  You just be faithful and own where you are.

The difficulty in discussing this matter is you can slide into a legalistic mindset very easily.

What do you think?  Does dress really matter?  If it does, what’s your go-to standards and practices?


4 thoughts on “Dressing for Church: Which Way Does One Go?

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